In November, the Church invites us all to meditate on the Communion of Saints. It is a time in which we become aware of the link of charity between the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant and the Pilgrim Church on Earth and the Holy Souls in Purgatory. But, the term “communion of saints” does not only refer to the communion among holy persons but also the communion in holy things that the members of the Church also share (see CCC 948). One of these holy things that has fallen into dis-use since the Second Vatican Council is relics. But if what the 1983 Code of Canon Law says about relics, namely that they are among the things necessary to “foster the sanctification of the people of God” (Canon 1186), then it seems fitting to offer an explanation and defense of the use of these sacred objects.
There are a number of reasons why relics have received little attention, not the least of which is a certain amount of Protestantism that has crept into the minds of the faithful. This is especially true when it comes to the veneration of the saints. In order to see the spiritual “value” of relics, we must first offer an explanation of the veneration we give to saints. The two are obviously linked, but history also bears out the importance of the link.
The first attack against the veneration of the saints came by way of an attack against icons and relics during the 8th Century. There arose within the Byzantine Empire an attempt to exclude icons from religious worship because they were deemed idolatrous. The pressure of the iconoclasts was only made more acute with the spread of Islam which forbids the use of religious images. In response to this pressure, the Church called the Second Council of Nicaea (787) and declared that “precious and lifelike figures of the Cross, the holy Gospels, sacred relics and monuments” were all included among valid objects of Christian worship. To further counter the accusation of idolatry, the Council Fathers declared that “the honor paid to the image passes on to the one who is represented, so that the person who venerates an image venerates the living reality whom the image depicts.”
Once the Church supported the use of relics as a means to pay honor to the one who is represented, the next attack came seven centuries later when the Council of Trent had to defend, not the use of relics and statues, but the veneration of saints and angels themselves against the Protestant revolt. What this shows is that the veneration of relics and statues is a defending wall against the attacks against the veneration of the saints. Where relics and statues play a key role in Christian worship, the saints also too are seen as powerful intercessors. This only serves to strengthen the relationship among all the members of the Church—those both in heaven and on earth.
It was around the time of the Second Council of Nicaea that St. John Damascene made the classic distinction between latria as the worship that we give to God alone and dulia, the veneration that we give to those to whom honor is due. The biblical principle that animates this distinction is articulated by St. Paul in his letter to the Romans when he says we are to “pay respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (Romans 13:7). How do we know that the saints are included in those whom we should honor? Because Our Lord says so in the Book of Revelation when He tells John that “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord’ (Rev 14:13).
We can also offer a logical proof from Scripture as to why the saints are to be venerated. Throughout Scripture, veneration is offered to the angels (see Joshua 5:14, Daniel 8:17, Tobit 12:16) because of their supernatural dignity which is rooted in the immediate union with God (see Mt 18:10). Since the saints also have immediate union with God (1Cor 13:12, 1 Jn 3:2) it follows that they are worthy of veneration.
To see why relics play such an important role, we must turn to the other font of divine Revelation, Sacred Tradition. In so doing we are able to see some of the practical ways in which the biblical necessity of honoring the saints was played out.
We begin by turning to the martyrdom of St. Polycarp (155 AD). St. Polycarp was a disciple of St. John the Apostle (according to St. Irenaeus, Tertullian and St. Jerome). In the account of his martyrdom, we find him setting aside his clothes and that the faithful were always “eager who should first touch his skin. For, on account of his holy life, he was, even before his martyrdom, adorned with every kind of good.” Later we read that the Roman officials refused the faithful St. Polycarp’s remains and later destroyed it.
From this we can conclude the Christians already by the 2nd Century were in the practice of collecting relics of the saints. A “theology” of relics had already been worked out and they understood their place in a healthy Christian worship. As the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom says “[F]or Him indeed, as being the Son of God, we adore; but the martyrs, as disciples and followers of the Lord, we worthily love on account of their extraordinary affection towards their own King and Master, of whom may we also be made companions and fellow disciples!”
What may not be so clear is the reasoning behind the destruction of Polycarp’s body by the Roman officials. It wasn’t just that they were trying to make the Christians’ lives difficult, but the Romans acknowledged that the remains of the martyrs were a source of spiritual power. They did not destroy the remains of any other people that they executed, it was only the Christians.
There are additional accounts from antiquity that show that relics were a hallmark of Christian belief (such as the Passion of Ss. Perpetua and Felicity) that make clear that because Christians believed that the bodies of the saints had come to share in Christ’s humanity, they therefore shared in His power to heal. They turned to the relics for miraculous intercession and received it.
They knew that because those same bodies were no longer animated by the soul of a saint, it did not mean that they ceased to be holy. In fact they knew that it is those same bodies that would be raised on the last day. If they sought to touch the body of Polycarp when he was alive, there was even more reason to do so after his death. It becomes apparent that the belief in relics also rests upon the foundational belief of the resurrection of the body. In a time when this doctrine too is little believed (especially that we receive back our same, although glorified, earthly bodies ), relics act as reminders of this glorious truth.
Veneration of relics both strengthens and expresses our hope in the Resurrection by venerating the earthly remains of one who we believe will assured rise to everlasting life. We know that there is a great “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrew 12:1) that surrounds us, relics make it possible to worship God in one family in a way that is tangible for us.
The veneration of the saints and their relics is one of the great treasures that Our Lord left to the Church. Not only do they help us to grow closer to the invisible members of the Family of God, they call to mind the great love and mercy of God who can raise up dust to be His adopted children. By venerating relics, we can more fully express and appreciate this gift.